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Liberal religion lost one of its most ardent and articulate champions when Forrest Church died September 24, 2009. The Rev. Dr. Church, who ministered more than thirty years at the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York, left a legacy that will be honored
this September 23 with an annual lecture at Union Theological Seminary in New York, where he served on the board of trustees.
Dan Cryer, a literary critic who is finishing a biography of Church for St. Martin’s Press, says that perhaps Forrest’s scholarship around issues of church and state is not more widely known because he also published more popular works about his ministry and theology. In all, there were some two dozen books. What Cryer and I admired as members of his congregation—his ability to effortlessly shift from intellectual rigor to the familiar—may have translated differently to the scholarly publishing world. At any rate, his book So Help Me God: The Founding Fathers and the First Great Battle Over Church and State is well worth the time of anyone who cares about what those founders really believed and what they did, and it has the blessing of the noted American historian Gordon S. Wood.
Certainly, Forrest was as American as they come. Five of his ancestors traveled on the Mayflower. His father, Frank, was a noted liberal senator from the conservative state of Idaho. One grandfather, Chase Clark, was a Democratic governor of Idaho. Yet, Forrest was more careful than many Unitarian Universalist ministers to avoid the impression that he was a yellow dog. It was important to him that people of all political points of view feel welcome in church as long as they came to religion with open hearts and minds.
Just as the Founding Fathers believed there should be no religious test for holding office, Forrest believed there could be no political test for being religious, which he defined as “our human response to being alive yet having to die.”
Liberal religion is often associated with the search for social justice, and certainly All Souls Church under Forrest’s leadership contributed to many vital causes—most notably its early ministry to people with HIV/AIDS, Scout troops for homeless children and later offering an alternative to scouting, the Navigators, and an ongoing meal program for homeless people.
But Forrest’s more often aimed his ministry directly at the woman or man in the pew. In 1986, he told the Boston Globe, “…generally, politicians try to change society for the betterment of the individual. I like to change the individual for the betterment of society.” Certainly many who listened to him preach or read his books were changed. We were not saved in the evangelical sense, but if you listened to him long enough, you couldn’t easily remain passive; he trusted people to know how to direct their energies.
Which is not to say he didn’t have opinions. In one of my favorite sermons, preached May 16, 2004, called “Choose Your Enemies,” he managed to touch on, among other topics, Brad Pitt, the movie “Troy,” the Iraq War, Hitler, Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln, Osama bin Laden, Abu Gharaib prison, American exceptionalism, George W. Bush (by inference), Saddam Hussein, and evil (Forrest believed in it.)
He loved aphorisms. Some I remember: “God is not God’s name but our name for that which is greater than all yet present in each.” “The opposite of love is not hate but fear.” “The reason so many angels can dance on the head of a pin is they take themselves so lightly.” “Do what you can, want what you have, be who you are.” But unlike so many other people who use such devices, he backed them up with plenty of substance which you can experience by reading his sermons and other writings at www.allsoulsnyc.org
The final test of his career came when he learned in 2006 that he had contracted cancer of the esophagus. He worried, said his beloved wife Carolyn Buck Luce, that he would not be able to live up to his theology, which, put concisely, was that life itself is miracle enough for any of us, and we should be grateful for whatever measure of it we are granted. As a Universalist, he didn’t believe in Hell, and he called himself agnostic about the afterlife: whatever it was could be no more amazing than life before death.
Through surgery and chemotherapy, remission and relapse, he showed us how to live and how to die. While undergoing treatment, he managed to write a book about it, Love and Death, and another one about his theology, Cathedral of the World. When he was able, he preached. When he was not, he found other ways to keep in touch, often by email. Eventually, though, the treatment worked no more and he yearned to die at home among his family, which he did the day after his sixty-first birthday.
Dan Cryer says that the longer he works on the yet untitled biography, the more he’s impressed by the grace, courage and generosity of this complex and unabashedly imperfect individual. Toward the end of his life, Cryer says, he was reconciled with almost all his enemies. Perhaps the low point of his career had come in the early 1990s when after an affair with Carolyn Buck Luce, a married congregant, the two divorced their first spouses and got married. The news hit the tabloids and New York Magazine, confirming for many people that ministers were hypocritical and liberal ministers particularly untrustworthy. Many people in the congregation thought he should leave. Yet, the congregation voted for him to stay, and he survived the crisis.
A second crisis came in 2000 when, with Carolyn’s insistence, he confronted his drinking habit. A year later, he confessed from the pulpit that he saw his attempt to fill a “God-sized hole” with alcohol as an outgrowth of pride, the worst sin in his eyes. After his cancer diagnosis, he said he was able to better face the end of his life because of that early attempt to make amends to those he had injured through his drinking.
In Love and Death, he wrote, “The goal is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for…The one thing that can’t be taken from us, even by death, is the love we give away before we go.”
In these days when too many people use religion as a battering ram against the other—gays and lesbians, Muslims, immigrants, the president—and when the religious right has tried to usurp even the mantle of Martin Luther King, Jr., we need to be reminded of another kind of religious legacy. May it long endure.